How research at Life is enriching lives
The International Centre for Life is a science village in the heart of Newcastle upon Tyne. Nearly 600 people from 35 countries are based here; researchers, doctors and nurses work alongside people in the fields of education, business and public engagement. They all share a common goal to enrich lives through science.
In 2019, Newcastle University restructured its Faculty of Medical Sciences (FMS). The University's research at Life, previously known as the Institute of Genetic Medicine, is now a part of various research institutes of FMS, with many of the onsite scientists working within the Biosciences Institute and the Translational and Clinical Research Institute.
At Life, more than 30 research groups, with over 200 research staff and postgraduate students, continue to do cutting-edge research. They work closely with the NHS Northern Genetics Service, which houses more than 150 NHS staff, including the Molecular Diagnostic Service for the region, and Clinical Genetics Directorate of The Newcastle Upon Tyne NHS Foundation Trust. In addition, there is an active collaboration with the NHS Newcastle Fertility Centre located onsite.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, all University buildings were closed for approximately six months, followed by a restricted opening with social distancing measures. Given that the research at Life is mostly done in laboratories, these measures had a severe impact on research. Some researchers were able to do a lot of data analysis from home, whilst others used the time to submit research grants and to write-up scientific publications. Others were able to adapt the focus of their work to help contribute to our understanding of COVID-19.
2020/21 research highlights:
- Researchers at Life are helping to understand COVID-19 infection and the body's response to it at a single-cell level, rather than just how it affects an entire organ. Researchers based at Life have identified cells on the mucus-rich surface of the human eye that provide an additional entry point for the virus into the respiratory tract. Furthermore, they found the virus may exploit the body's immune response to inadvertently enhance the infection. This work contributed to an international collaboration with colleagues from the Human Cell Atlas, which has also identified two cell types in the nose as likely initial infection points. The role that specific respiratory and intestinal cells play in COVID-19 infection were also identified.
- Last year, researchers in the John Walton Muscular Dystrophy Research Centre, based at Life, were part of an international research study to diagnose patients with unexplained muscle disease by their genetics. In the research, a specific part of the 'genome' – the instructions for making and maintaining a human being – of 1,001 undiagnosed patients was DNA sequenced. From this, the researchers were able to identify the genetic mutation responsible for the diseases in more than half of the patients. This technique only looks at 2% of the full human genome, allowing for rapid testing and diagnosis.
- Working with colleagues from the NHS Newcastle Fertility Centre, scientists at Newcastle University studying female reproduction identified key molecular mechanisms that are important for cell division to create egg cells. Understanding these basic mechanisms contributes enormously to insights in normal and abnormal development and child health.
- Scientists working on the prevention of hereditary colorectal cancer in patients with Lynch syndrome published the results of a 10-year follow-up to the clinical trial. The international trial – known as CAPP2 – involved patients with Lynch syndrome from around the world, with half taking two aspirins a day, for an average of two and a half years, and the other half a placebo. The scientists found the regular dose of aspirin reduced the rate of bowel cancer by about half, and this protective effect is now known to last for at least 10 years.